“When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage. And when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was.” Nora Ephron
Among the dirty little secrets that surround new parenthood, relationship conflict with a partner or spouse almost always make the short list, often rising to the very top of the list. It is not possible to imagine, pre-baby, how much your intimate romantic and sexual relationship could alter so drastically just from the arrival of a 5 to 8 pound bundle of “joy”. It is equally unfathomable to imagine the amount of work that will be added once baby makes three. Making matters worse , the full story about marriage is rarely told leaving many a mother feeling isolated, like she is the only one struggling in her marriage. Meanwhile, the non-birthing partner, usually dad, is often feeling rejected by the mother, even resentful and jealous of his own progeny. It’s a recipe on both sides for anger, frustration, even rage.
Many mothers complain about being touched out by the end of the day, feeling like sex has become just another chore on the to do list. By far and away the biggest complaint, however, is about the husband/partner not doing their share of the household chores. It is also usually the mother who does the mental work of the family: keeping track of the doctor’s appointments, and determining the best baby products and baby practices (Are there enough diapers and baby food in the house and what is the best way to carry the baby or put her down for a nap?). This role often causes tension with the father/partner. Even when she is not physically exhausted from the endless loads of laundry and feedings, the mother often can’t just relax because even a night out requires someone (usually her) to find and arrange for a babysitter. It is not uncommon for women to lose power in the relationship after giving birth or adopting because they are no longer earning money outside the house (at least temporarily). This wouldn’t necessarily be problematic, but for the value that society puts on making money. The partner may come home from work and ask “What did you do all day?”. Whether the question is benevolent or not, the mother may believe that keeping a a fussy nap-avoidant baby alive all day has less value than being the family wage earner. Or the partner may became disproportionately powerful, taking control of the family decisions and finances.
The complaint list for the partner often looks very different. The partner may complain about not having sex, or enough sex. This is often intimately related to emotional closeness. In short, the (usually) men in question miss the sex but they also miss their partners. The number two complaint is being shut out of the mother-baby bond. The partner may desperately want to take care of and bond with the baby, but the mother doesn’t trust her partner and lets him or her know in no uncertain terms that s/he’s not doing it “right”, discouraging the partner from trying at all.
Here are a few tips and suggestions to get through this challenging time when spouses and partners struggle to adjust to their post-baby relationship.
1. Sit down and divvy up the household chores. Make sure it’s clear who is doing what. Consider a white board or wall calendar where more urgent chores get listed. Check in regularly, perhaps weekly, to discuss what is working and what is not. Make sure that one partner isn’t doing more than their fair share of the load.
2. Don’t be a gatekeeper for access to the baby even if you feel that you would provide better care than your partner. Sometimes we have to let our partners struggle or just caretake differently from us.
3. Find ways to be intimate whether that includes sex or not. Schedule regular dates and times for hanging out with each other with and without clothes on. Don’t expect spontaneity and a burning sexual desire to get you through. Establishing an emotional connection by holding hands or leaning into each other. If need be, schedule sex. You may be pleasantly surprised that it’s not actually such a chore after all. (And don’t be afraid to ask the partner to arrange for the babysitter.)
4. Ask for what you need and prioritize self-care before you’re burning with resentment and rage. No one can continually give from an empty well without withering. Don’t expect people to read your mind. Take time every week to exercise, socialize with adults or just be alone and do nothing.
5. Respect each other’s roles and jobs. You’re probably both working harder than you ever have in your life. Don’t equate bringing home a paycheck (or a larger paycheck) with who gets more power in the relationship. If you believe that your stay-at-home spouse isn’t working as hard as you, try caring for the baby for a week to experience first-hand how challenging it can be.
6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Relationships, by definition, include occasional conflicts, and everyone needs to know to how to deal with them. Your partner may not realize that you want him or her to take care of bottles in the sink WITHOUT being asked.. You may not realize that your partners feelings are hurt when you take the baby every time s/he cries.. One way to start a difficult conversation is “The story that I’m telling myself (about this situation) is. . . . “ Use “I” statements and be concrete in what changes you need to see. In turn, be a good listener and try to hear the story from your partner’s perspective.